BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- In the warm wee hours of an October Sunday, Mike Slive emerges from a small jet plane with his silk tie tugged down and his starched collar unbuttoned.
It's the only evidence that this has been a marathon day for the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. Slive doesn't rumple easily.
He'd first cinched the tie tight around his Adam's apple at 5:30 Saturday morning. Since then he'd been on the job for 18½ hours -- flitting from breakfast in Birmingham to lunch in Auburn to dinner in Baton Rouge. He'd joined 175,567 football fans in two different SEC stadiums -- Vanderbilt at Auburn in the morning, Florida at LSU at night -- with another 50,000 feral fans circulating outside Tiger Stadium as an epic game raged. He'd squeezed in an afternoon pit stop at league headquarters to watch Georgia at Tennessee on TV.
As he does every weekend in the fall, Slive had simmered in the SEC's unique gumbo of ingredients: the reverence for tradition, the wild unpredictability, the fierce competition, the runaway emotions, the desperate stakes, the sticky heat, the sugary hospitality. When another Saturday's movable feast of football was over, the unlikely boss of the best and bawdiest league in the land pronounced it good.
"We saw two games and two full stadiums and it was only a sampling of what was going on throughout the South," Slive says on the midnight flight back home from No. 1 LSU's dramatic win over the defending national champions. "The intensity was replicated in Knoxville, Starkville, Oxford, Tuscaloosa, Little Rock -- and on Thursday night in Columbia. You'd see much the same thing if you were in any of those towns: incomparable athletes competing at the highest level, giving everything they have."
BIRMINGHAM, Oct. 6, 9 a.m. CDT: You know you're in the South when you pull into a restaurant parking lot for breakfast and are greeted by the powerful smell of barbecue. It's never too early to get the meat smoking, especially on a football Saturday.
Mike Slive has commandeered a table at Demetri's BBQ, a bustling place that serves biscuits the size of softballs. This is the first fueling stop for a full day of traversing the South.
During the season he'll visit every campus at least once. Slive attended the Kentucky-South Carolina game Thursday night in Columbia and worked a short day Friday, trying to rest up for a breakneck weekend.
This morning he got up at 5, drove through Starbucks at 6 and was in the SEC office by 6:30 to do some advance work on his annual meeting with the league's presidents and chancellors. That will take place the following two days in Atlanta. Today is all about football.
In a restaurant crowd heavy on Roll Tide T-shirts and jean shorts, Slive appears out of place in coat and tie. It's not the first time he's looked like an odd fit with his Southern surroundings.
When the SEC hired Slive away from Conference USA in 2002, many people wondered how a Jewish lawyer with an Ivy League diploma and a New York birth certificate was going to mesh with a brass-knuckles league in the Bible Belt.
Nobody asks that question anymore. Now in his sixth year, Mike Slive and the SEC have made a seemingly awkward marriage work.
The SEC is as powerful as ever, a moneymaking monster with unrivaled clout and broad-based success across all 20 sports it sponsors. During the 2006-07 season, the SEC became the first league to win national titles in football (Florida), men's basketball (Florida) and women's basketball (Tennessee) in the same year. There were five other national champions as well: women's gymnastics (Georgia), men's and women's swimming and diving (Auburn in both), men's tennis (Georgia) and women's bowling (Vanderbilt). This year the league distributed a record $122 million in revenue to its 12 schools.
That's a continuation of the machine set in motion by former commissioner Roy Kramer. He oversaw league expansion and the creation of the league championship football game, and he also played midwife to the problem child known as the BCS. Where Slive has made his mark is in burnishing the SEC's tarnished image.
As I've told our people, there's really only one conference in the country that can prevent us from being the best conference in the country, and that's us. The SEC. There's objective evidence that we've made progress off the field where we wanted to: diversity, compliance, an emphasis on education and graduation.
--Commissioner Mike Slive on the SEC
A league with a notorious history of rule-breaking is less than a year away from fulfilling the commissioner's pipe dream: In May 2003, less than a year into the job, Slive declared his desire to have all 12 schools off NCAA probation within five years. For a league currently in a 25-year run of having at least one school on probation at all times, that sounded charmingly naïve.
Three programs are currently in the NCAA pokey: Georgia men's basketball, South Carolina football and Mississippi State football. The last one (Mississippi State) comes off probation on June 11, 2008, at which time Slive will have overseen a minor miracle.
"There's many a slip between the cup and the lip," Slive cautions. "But as of today, we have a shot.
"The presidents and athletic directors have been so supportive in this area. Whether we make it or not, we've raised consciousness of those issues. We've made some solid progress. I'm not naïve enough to think there won't be problems, but we've made progress in terms of cultural change."
When his time is done as commissioner of the SEC -- his contract runs through 2009 with an option year for 2010, at which time he'll be 70 and could entertain the idea of retirement -- this could be his legacy: How a buttoned-down intellectual from back East got a bunch of wild Southern boys to behave.
(That is, after all, a big reason he got the job -- one of Slive's law firms specialized in representing schools charged with NCAA misdeeds. He literally made a living off of compliance and damage control.)
Combine the SEC's diminished rap sheet with the hiring of its first African-American head football coach (Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State) and athletic directors (Damon Evans at Georgia and David Williams at Vanderbilt, technically the "Vice Chancellor for University Affairs"), and you have advancement under Slive in the areas where the league had embarrassed itself.
"As I've told our people, there's really only one conference in the country that can prevent us from being the best conference in the country, and that's us. The SEC," Slive says. "There's objective evidence that we've made progress off the field where we wanted to: diversity, compliance, an emphasis on education and graduation."
For now, Slive is making progress through a plate of scrambled eggs and biscuits. He glances at the TV overhead and happily notes the presence of ESPN's "GameDay" show in Baton Rouge -- good pub for the league.
When it's time to pay, Slive waits a minute or two for the waitress before leaving the money on the table. This will be a running theme through the day: The man hates to wait.
From Demetri's it's a short drive to a private airport, where a four-seat plane awaits for the 30-minute flight to Auburn. The SEC is sensitive to the appearance of grandiosity -- private planes and police escorts to and from stadiums -- but it's the only feasible way to make the multi-stop Saturdays pioneered by Kramer work. Traveling to a single massive SEC stadium in a small, rural town is difficult enough; trying to visit two or more on the same day would be impossible flying commercial and fighting traffic.
AUBURN, 11 a.m.: Kickoff is only about 40 minutes away, so traffic is fairly light to Jordan-Hare Stadium. The commissioner and his party arrive in an unmarked Auburn police car on the opposite side of the stadium from the press box, which necessitates a trek around the edifice.
Slive enjoys the walk. He points out a three-generation group of Auburn fans: an older couple with what appears to be their daughter and granddaughter. He chuckles at a woman's orange shirt that reads, "Southern Belles Love Their Tigers."
Once in the press box, Slive is pressing flesh with Auburn administrators left and right. That includes athletic director Jay Jacobs, a large and gregarious former football player at the school.
"He's done a great job," Jacobs says of Slive. "Trying to keep 12 coaches, ADs and administrators happy takes a special person. And he's a special person."
He is generally a cautious man with the media. His inner lawyer will think -- and think -- before answering a question, choosing his words as if each one might explode. He will go off-the-record for seemingly the most innocuous statements.
But he can also be a real charmer -- a prodigious intellectual with a warm side. That's been a vital quality in ingratiating himself to an insular league.
He remembers names and asks about spouses. Slaps backs. Shares high-quality cigars with his friends.
"You can only be yourself," Slive says. "It took almost no time at all for Liz [his wife] and I to share the passion that people have who have been part of the SEC for generations."
On the field, the generational tug of SEC football is evident. Auburn is wearing all white at home, including all-white helmets, to honor its 1957 national championship team which did the same. At halftime they bring out members of that team, including sons and daughters of those who could not be here. An astonishing number of fans stay in their seats to applaud the old-timers.
The game has been decided by halftime. Auburn has shown no hangover from its upset of Florida, mowing down Vanderbilt 28-0 at the break. Slive has watched much of it with binoculars pressed to his eyes.
You might not guess it, but the small, trim man was a college athlete. He arrived at Dartmouth as a quarterback but switched to lacrosse and lettered three years after an unmistakable hint from the football coach.
"We had 20 quarterbacks and 19 centers," he says. "When we lined up and I was the one without a center, I knew I was in trouble."
At the end of the third quarter the SEC party leaves for the airport. Auburn would go on to win 35-7. Cognizant of the TV ratings, Slive was disappointed that the game was not more competitive.
But if there is one thing you will not catch the man doing in this ferociously competitive conference, it's rooting for either side during a league game. Even subtly. Slive's wardrobe is heavy on green and brown, since no school in the SEC has those in its color scheme.
"People always ask me who I cheer for," he says. "The officials."
After a brief nap on the plane ride, Slive is refreshed. When the plane touches down in Birmingham, Slive smacks associate commissioner Charles Bloom on the knee.
"OK, gentlemen, Round 1 is over," he says. "Round 2 is here. And Round 3 is in Baton Rouge."
BIRMINGHAM, 3 p.m.: Round 2. Soon as he can get a signal, Bloom dials up league scores via his handheld and reports the results. In his car and heading to the downtown office, Slive dials up the SEC stations on XM Radio.
Tennessee is putting a whuppin' on Georgia, the league's marquee mid-day game. Ole Miss is shutting out Louisiana Tech. But UAB is surprising Mississippi State in Starkville, leading 10-3.
The first stop at the SEC office is the Davis Command Center, where three flat-screen TVs adorn the wall and electronic gear is arrayed everywhere. Tennessee-Georgia is on the flat screen front-and-center. Oklahoma-Texas plays to the left. Seated at the table facing the screens is Rogers Redding, SEC coordinator of officials.
Redding has a Diet Dr. Pepper, some Planters peanuts and the rosters of every SEC crew working a game today arrayed in front of him. He's making notes on calls as he goes.
Every week, every conference office in the country receives videotape complaints from schools claiming they were wronged by the refs. Redding says the average Monday venting load varies from three to nine allegedly blown calls. It's his job to review the plays in question and get back to both the schools and the officials with his interpretation.
"If a coach sends in video Monday morning," Redding says, "they get a response Monday afternoon."
Redding had watched Auburn-Vandy and says it was well called. Slive agrees.
"Quick calls," he says. "Lots of double flags."
Redding's crews are laden with veterans, which he says is imperative for a league like the SEC. The stakes are too high and the criticism too loud if they get key calls wrong.
"We're not a developmental league," Redding says. "We can't be. When you're working a game with 25,000 people versus 105,000 at Tennessee, it's not the same game."
On the flat screen, Tennessee is shockingly routing Georgia. Camera men capture a jubilant Volunteers fan in checkerboard overalls, then a group of downtrodden Bulldogs fans.
"That's an SEC picture," Slive observes. "Intensity, agony and joy."
When the crawl says UAB 13, Mississippi State 9, the commissioner's brow furrows. He knows how important this year is for Croom, and how important this game is.
Now 3-2 in his fourth year, Croom is showing distinct signs of progress after a slow start. State has given him time, and Slive is glad. He won't give voice to it, but it's vital for the league's first black coach to succeed -- and be given every opportunity to do so.
Slive retreats from the command center to his spacious office in the building the city of Birmingham built for the league in 1991. Attached to a table is an antique tobacco grinder. In Slive's mouth is an unlit cigar. And up against one wall is a stand-up desk.
Before computers, Slive worked standing up -- which certainly fits his energy level. He'd still prefer to do it that way, but technology has forced him into a chair. Facing his computer, he sends an e-mail to his assistant, Kathryn Switzer, who is on site in Starkville:
"Can u get some first downs?"
A short while later comes the reply: "Got u a touchdown."
Mississippi State pulls away to win 30-13. Mississippi puts away Louisiana Tech 24-0. Alabama holds off Houston 30-24. That's a good afternoon roundup for the league -- no upset losses, in a season rife with them.
BATON ROUGE, 5:45 p.m.: The plane has joined a remarkable throng of private jets on the tarmac, touching down 15 minutes early. Which means Slive has to wait. Within a minute or two he's on the phone working to accelerate the process of getting to the stadium.
Soon enough, a white SUV driven by a cop in an LSU shirt arrives to take the entourage into the heart of madness. He estimates that 140,000 to 150,000 people have clustered around a stadium that seats 92,000.
"Biggest crowd ever," the cop says, flipping on the flashing blue lights. "All the lots are full. Even lots we've never used before."
Even with police help it's not an easy task penetrating the mass of humanity. Once there, the group steps into the hot, thick air and heads for field level to soak up the atmosphere. Slive meets and greets, gazes at the Louisiana carnival raging in the stands and never seems to sweat -- even with his suit coat on.
"Feels so good down here I hate to go inside," he says, a sentiment not shared by his companions.
Two drunk fans scream at the commish: "Heyyyyy, Mike! You the man!" But otherwise he's surprisingly unnoticed weaving his way into the parking lot for a quick visit to the CBS production truck and then to the press box. Once there, Slive does some schmoozing over a plate of jambalaya with the full cadre of national writers on hand for the biggest game of the week.
When the game starts, Slive settles into his seat and trains his binoculars on the field. He's into the action, rooting for a close game and no blown calls. Florida is off to a hot start, up 10-0, when Slive slips out in the second quarter to spend time with the schools' athletic directors.
First stop is LSU AD Skip Bertman's box, where Slive sits on the steps next to Skip's chair. While there, LSU drives for a touchdown to make it 10-7.
"OK, I brought you luck," Slive says on his way out. "Now it's your job to take it the rest of the way."
From there Slive goes to Florida AD Jeremy Foley's box, where the identical scenario plays out. Slive on the steps, Foley in his seat, Gators drive to score.
"OK, I brought you luck," Slive tells him. "Now it's your job to take it the rest of the way."
The man is Switzerland. Neutrality personified.
During the second half a fascinating subplot develops thousands of miles away. USC is clinging to a six-point lead over puny Stanford -- and the Cardinal is driving late. As reporters pull up the play-by-play on their laptops, the SEC crowd becomes very interested.
Neutrality doesn't extend beyond league borders. They're all Stanford fans now.
When Stanford pulls the miracle, the media members share their shock. The SEC officials suppress their glee. Now LSU is an undisputed No. 1 -- if it can come back from a 24-14 deficit.
It's 24-21 now, and LSU gets the ball back with nine minutes left. Problem is, the commissioner's plane is set for takeoff at 11. There was no intention to stay for the end of the game, given the logistical issues involved with leaving and the necessity for Slive to be in Atlanta the next day.
LSU drives. The SEC crew stays in the press box, dawdling past the anticipated departure time. Finally, it's time to go -- with LSU inside the Florida 5.
Two plays after whisking down the elevator and into the white SUV, LSU's Jacob Hester bulls into the end zone. Listening to it on the radio, with the windows rolled up, you still can hear the explosion from inside Tiger Stadium.
Florida's last-gasp drive extends all the way through the ride to the airport. The final pass falls incomplete and the cop in the purple shirt smacks his hands together, pumps his fists and yells out the window to a couple other policemen, "Tigers win! Tigers win!"
While campus erupts, Mike Slive is boarding a jet home. Before takeoff he calls his wife to say good-night, and don't bother waiting up.
"Very nice day," he tells her, understated as always.
BIRIMINGHAM, just past midnight: Collar undone and undoubtedly tired, Slive is still buoyant -- not quite ready to sleep. He says goodbye to his travel partners and slips into his black Buick for the drive to his home in Vestavia Hills.
He'll have a glass of wine and some cheese and crackers while watching the late-night football highlights. As usual, his league will be prominently featured for his viewing pleasure. An SEC team is No. 1, and the league just delivered a prime-time blockbuster game.
The kingdom is strong as ever. The keeper of the keys is pleased.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.